Symposium Introduction

On September 16, 1963, the day after a bomb planted by white supremacists at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, murdered four black children—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—a white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. spoke to a segregated white audience at the city’s Young Men’s Business Club. “Who did it?” he asked. “Who threw that bomb? Was it a negro or a white? The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it” (17). With that, Jemar Tisby opens his historical survey of Christianity and race in America.

The content of The Color of Compromise is well known in academic and activist circles. Yet its argument is innovative in how it deploys culturally evangelical language and tropes to make the history of structural racism legible to a popular audience. As our panelists from academic, ministerial, and activist backgrounds attest, Tisby’s approach merits our careful and appreciatively critical attention.

Tisby is uniquely positioned to work at the intersection of popular, scholarly, and church worlds. After a stint as a middle school principal in Mississippi, Tisby cofounded The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and pursued a PhD in history at the University of Mississippi, where he is a doctoral candidate. He also launched Pass the Mic, a podcast featuring conversations on race with an array of religious leaders and activists.

Throughout his career Tisby has reached out to white evangelical Christians, and The Color of Compromise is no exception. Tisby deploys the language of cultural evangelicalism to trace the history of racism pervading American society. This is no small feat, as evangelical lingo has historically proven more adept at condoning than at exposing structural racism. In Tisby’s hands, however, this language is put to bracingly effective diagnostic use. He wagers that despite the ways that white America has weaponized Christianity for white supremacist ends, the Christian gospel remains anti-racist at its core. In this respect he writes from a place of deep hope for the American church.

Our panelists respond to this hope in a variety of ways. Korie Little-Edwards questions whether white Christianity can be extricated from white supremacy. She observes, “If white evangelicals today actively opposed and divested from all vestiges of white supremacy and white hegemony as well as their whiteness, racial inequality and injustice could not persist.” Yet this would “challenge not only their racial identity and way of life but I dare say their religious identity as well.” This prompts her to ask, “Is there such a thing as white Christianity in America without white supremacy?”

Nancy Bedford addresses the theology underwriting white American racism. She argues that the white Christian complicity in racism that Tisby exposes is rooted in a heretical Christology that preaches the full divinity of Christ without acknowledging his full humanity as the “Brown or Black Jesus of Nazareth confessed as the Christ.” Consequently, white Christianity preaches a “docetic white Jesus of white racism” who “cannot be called upon to defend those who are in the crosshairs of anti-Blackness.” She challenges us to consider, “What theological moves are needed in order for the call to transformation by Jesus of Nazareth to be heard in their midst?”

Amaryah Armstrong interrogates whether the language of compromise and its corresponding call to courageous Christianity is capable of precipitating the kind of change that Tisby seeks. “Compromise” suggests that the offending party was once oriented correctly. This obscures the fact that white American Christianity was anti-black from the start. Nor is black resilience in the face of racism rooted in Christianity per se. Rather, it is the product of the courage of black individuals and communities who, in certain cases, chose to use “Christian materials” to give expression to that courage. Armstrong closes by challenging black evangelicalism to narrate American Christian history without invoking the story of compromise.

Shane Claiborne and Liz Theoharis write as white Christian activists exploring the practical implications of Tisby’s argument. Claiborne emphasizes the importance of breaking down the silos that incubate and perpetuate racism. He describes his own experience in an eastern Tennessee high school festooned with confederate flag imagery. He gained perspective on how deeply problematic those signifiers were by interacting with people who neither looked nor thought like he did. “Sometimes,” Claiborne writes, “our problem is not a compassion problem but a relationship problem, a geography problem, a proximity problem.” Breaking down the silos has been a mainstay of his activism, whether through the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, participation in Truth and Reconciliation forums, or recruiting local government officials to do social justice work.

Liz Theoharis draws on her experience as co-chair for The Poor People’s Campaign to describe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King (and the title of Tisby’s closing chapter), “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” A staggering number of American residents—disproportionately people of color—suffer from poverty and lack access to basic goods such as health care and clean water. As the wealthiest nation on earth, America has the resources to address these effects of systemic racism. White Christians resist these calls to change because they continue to accept what Theoharis describes as the “lie of scarcity and compromise” that keeps racist structures in place. But change we must—and white Christians can join in by rejecting the lie of compromise for an expansive and inclusive “revolution of values” that centers the poor and the marginalized.

There are no perfect formulas for effective argument. Debates over how and when to engage race issues will, and must, continue. Tisby challenges us to broaden our sense of who can engage productively on these issues, and our panelists respond to this challenge with insight and care. May we all come away invigorated for the work ahead.

Korie Little-Edwards

Response

The Burden of Language

Race is woven into the fabric of America, and the church in America is by no means an exception in this tapestry. Its role has varied in severity and form. One of the more commonly cited examples of its role is the moment an eighteenth-century white Philadelphia Methodist congregation decided to physically obstruct prominent religious leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones as well as other African American worshippers from praying on the main floor of a sanctuary. A couple centuries later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, laments and vehemently refuted the calls of white religious leaders of his time to be patient with Jim Crow segregation. These are but two of many examples in Jemar Tisby’s historical overview of the role of the white American church in the institutionalization of racism and discrimination in America. The Color of Compromise is a much-needed revelation for which I am grateful. I especially appreciate the clear and direct approach to the subject matter. In this essay, I engage The Color of Compromise on language and gender in an effort to expand our ideas on how we address race in the American church.

Language matters. It is a vehicle of communication, true. But more than this, language is a cultural tool used to frame and convey appropriate action and the severity of an issue. For example, if someone says they are enraged, you know they are not simply mad. To be enraged is far more intense than mad and implies that clear actions to rectify whatever caused the rage may follow. Or, to call something toxic rather than harmful conveys that whatever is causing the damage has the potential to not only hurt but to permanently damage or kill. Similarly, the language we choose to talk about race is critically important and has important implications for people’s lives and whether or not the outcomes of race are perceived as worthy of action and intervention.

This is not to say that the language often used to make sense of race is inaccurate. It is accurate. For instance, “racial formation” and “racialized social system” are used by leading scholars in my field (sociology) to conceptualize how race works institutionally. Racial formation is defined as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Omi and Winant: 1996). A racialized social system is a “society in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (Bonilla-Silva 1997: 469). I often use these concepts to frame my scholarship. The benefit of these conceptualizations is that they are broad and inclusive, providing analytic tools to explain race at all levels of society and across institutions.

However, there are times when this language is simply insufficient because it does not address culpability nor the evil and hatred that fuels race. It can run the risk of sanitizing the damage that race does, obscuring the realities of America’s brutal racial history and present. A reality where people’s bodies have been mutilated by fire, bullets, and beatings. A reality where life, if not shortened by murder, is cut short because of the toxicity of the racism that is breathed all day every day. A reality where people are put away in unkept windowless cells for years if not for life for crimes that whites are never even charged for. A reality where the perpetrators of such evil and violence are almost always publicly and privately exonerated and even praised for their acts.

What scholarly concepts do I propose we consider deploying? I suggest white supremacist / white supremacy, white hegemony, and whiteness. White supremacy is a system that rests on the belief that white people are superior to all other people. To say a system is a white hegemonic system is to say how white supremacy reigns. Originally created through force (e.g., human enslavement, genocidal wars, etc.), a white hegemonic system is one where white dominance and the ideologies, norms, and values that sustain it are taken for granted, by whites and people of color. This is opposed to a white supremacist system reliant upon force, such as slavery or apartheid. Whiteness is distinguished from both white supremacy and white hegemony in that it encompasses white identity and is a recognition that white identity has meaning and implications. To be white is to live in a society where whites’ dominance and culture are presumed to be normative, just the way things are and ought to be in fact. Consequently, to be white also often means to be oblivious to one’s race. That is, if you’re white, other groups have a race, but you and other whites are actually, for all intents and purposes, race-less. Whiteness, white supremacy and white hegemony reinforce one another. White people reinforce the existing white supremacist and white hegemonic system by taking the privilege of disproportionate power and advantage and the normativity of their culture(s) for granted, presuming that the way things are is the right way. By definition, that is a white supremacist perspective.

Tisby uses this language from time to time in The Color of Compromise, although I would have preferred it be more central to his analysis. The primary reason I propose the use of white supremacy, white hegemony, and whiteness is these concepts name the main perpetrators of the pain and destruction of humans souls, dignity, and possibilities that race causes: whites. There is a real resistance to deploying language that points at whites’ culpability in racial oppression. A common retort is not all whites participate in the creation and reproduction of white supremacy, white hegemony, and whiteness. I am sympathetic to this argument. When whites do challenge white supremacy, they can suffer the fate that their black and brown brothers and sisters experience. Think about the white men and women who were jailed, beaten, or murdered because they actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement. In challenging white supremacy, they lost the privileges and rights associated with their whiteness. However, it is a rare thing for whites to denounce their whiteness and the privileges that come with it by actively challenging white supremacy. Silence is not a challenge. It is permission. Especially in a white hegemonic society like the modern-day United States, all that is needed to reproduce and sustain a white supremacist system is silence.

One more point on language. The Color of Compromise argues that the white American church was complicit in the institutionalization of racism and discrimination. It seems to me that the white American church was more than complicit, much more. Complicity suggests that the white American church went along with what other white institutions were doing. The reality is white Christians in America actively engaged in the creation and reproduction of a system of white supremacy. For sure, they generated moral frameworks to legitimate and justify white supremacy. That has been their specialty. White Christians in America also enforced segregation in their churches. They lynched human beings with glee on church grounds. They openly resisted the Civil Rights Movement led by their black Christian brothers and sisters. They openly and with vigor advocated for racist political candidates. As people who regularly engage in other spaces outside of religion, like neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools, white Christians in America participate in all the other institutions in society that are too white supremacist, thereby reaffirming them.

I think it is more appropriate to say the white American church was and is instrumental to the institutionalization of a white supremacist society. White Christians in America have it in their power to undo white supremacy. If white evangelicals today actively opposed and divested from all vestiges of white supremacy and white hegemony as well as their whiteness, racial inequality and injustice could not persist. But, to do so would be to challenge not only their racial identity and way of life but I dare say their religious identity as well. Even those who we might think are the most open and accepting have white supremacist thinking. In my books The Elusive Dream and Against All Odds, for example, I show how white members of multiracial churches draw upon Bible verses to justify their way of doing church, which is in reality a claim that their way was the superior way, superior because it was supported by God. But alas, this is nothing new. Frederick Douglass bemoaned the white supremacy of white abolitionists in his day. One has to wonder, is there such a thing as white Christianity in America without white supremacy? I will leave you to ponder the answer to that question.1

I will now turn briefly to gender.

The Color of Compromise is largely, not exclusively, the story of men in America and the role they played in the creation or dismantling of white supremacy. Women are mentioned. Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks, as well as historian Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, are a few of the notable exceptions highlighted. Another exception is the discussion of the way white women’s sexuality was uplifted by white men as a symbol of white purity in need of protecting.

Privileging the stories and narratives of men is standard in published historical retellings. Not being a historian myself, there are a couple ways to look at this as I see it. The archival documents that are accessible are ones about men or developed by men of their era. Historians are therefore limited by the kind of data available. Greater resources are required to unearth the oft-hidden voices, experiences, and self-definitions of women, resources that, I imagine, are hard to come by. Another thought I have is the story of the white American church is in fact the story of (non-poor) white men. White American Christianity is a patriarchal system and is sexist at least as much as it is racist. It is important, therefore, to recognize that America is comprised of multiple interlocking systems of oppression, as Patricia Hill Collins (1986) puts it. Race, gender, and class are all working simultaneously to distribute power, wealth, and esteem. At the top of that system are non-poor white men. They receive the most power, wealth, and esteem. And the farther a person is from that intersection, the less of these resources they have an opportunity to access. Perhaps what we are dealing with, then, is a history of white (non-poor) Christian men behaving badly. This by no means is meant to minimize the active participation of white Christian women or poor white Christian men in the development and sustaining of white supremacy. It is rather to note that not all whites have equal influence and power over the production and reproduction of white supremacy. Some are more culpable than others.

Power systems, like race, are complex. Work like The Color of Compromise brings us closer to deconstructing them. As we continue this work, let us pay attention to how we talk about them, speaking truth about their complexity and severity. It is only then that we truly move toward greater freedom.

 

Works Cited

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations. New York: NYU Press.

Edwards, Korie L. 2008. The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. New York: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, Korie L. 2019. “Presidential Address: Religion and Power—a Return to the Roots of Social Scientific Scholarship.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58: 5–19.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 62(3): 465–80.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 1986. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Social Problems 33(6): 14–32.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1996. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.


  1. See Edwards (2019) for a more expansive discussion of religion and power.

  • Jemar Tisby

    Jemar Tisby

    Reply

    Response to Korie Little-Edwards

    I must begin with gratitude. I scarcely thought my first book, The Color of Compromise, would merit a roundtable discussion, especially from such high-caliber respondents. Truly, each of them has offered critical insights that have pushed my thinking and refined my approach to racial justice. I especially appreciate the efforts of Jeremy Sabella, who first envisioned this symposium, and for the editors at Syndicate for hosting it.

    I wrote The Color of Compromise for two reasons. First, I have been personally impacted by racism in the white Christian and evangelical church as well as society more broadly. For years I have been one of only a handful of Black people in churches, college, seminary, graduate school, and other settings. With this book I wanted to provide some historical data to demonstrate that the racism Black people and other people of color said was happening is real. Literally centuries of history attest to the willful construction of a white supremacist society, often with the support and even leadership of those who called themselves Christian.

    Second, I wanted The Color of Compromise to approach the now familiar topic of racism from a different vantage point. In my research I found a bevy of books addressed to Christians that dealt with the topic of race. Many of them offered lessons from personal experience and gave firsthand testimony about racism in action. Others undertook a sociological or psychological examination of race. Still others focused on how to build and sustain multiracial churches. In all of these volumes history was mentioned, but it was never the center. In The Color of Compromise I wanted history to be the vehicle that transported the reader through several centuries of racism in the US church.

    Released in January 2019, The Color of Compromise arrived at a cultural and ecclesiastical moment when interest in the topic of race was high. Current events compelled conversations about race. From heated arguments about immigration policy and putting children in detention centers to commemorations of the year 1619, when Europeans first brought Africans to the British colony of Virginia, race was a near constant topic. Still reeling in the aftermath of the 2016 election when 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted pulled the lever for now-president Donald Trump, many churches and Christians had been attempting to discern the reason for both the partisan and racial divides in the US church. The Color of Compromise arrived at a time when leaders and laypeople wanted to know more and, perhaps, do more about racial justice.

    The reception to the book has been mixed but mostly positive. Using historical study as a way to approach the issue of racism made it more accessible to many white evangelicals who would have otherwise written off a book on race as “liberal” or “leftist.” I think Emma Green’s review in the Atlantic captured the potency of history well. She wrote, “Tisby’s historical frame is helpful in another way: It offers white conservative Christians language for talking about racism in a way they can accept and understand.” For those hesitant about wading into the harsh truths of racism, history seems less overtly ideological, almost clinical, in comparison to other genres such as personal narratives or the social sciences. At the same time, many Black people have found the book helpful as well. At a book talk in Cincinnati, I spoke to Leslie Edwards, who at ninety-four years old, is one of the original and last-surviving Tuskegee Airmen. He was one of the first to arrive at the event and told me how much the stories in the book resonated with his own history-making experience.

    The criticism came from predictable places. The most strident disagreements with the book came from fundamentalist Christians, usually white and male. One professor at my former seminary wrote, “Throughout the book, one gets the impression that the historical survey is politically motivated. A number of his sources (see endnotes) are ideologically driven books opposed to conservative political perspectives.” For such critics any analysis of the church that says white supremacy and racism were endemic to the formation of the church in the United States must necessarily be “incomplete” and “politically motivated.” They especially took issue with the chapters focusing on Billy Graham and King during the Civil Rights movement and the subsequent era that detailed the “Rise of the Religious Right.” In rebuttals, they often reference their favorite pastors or theologians. Almost never do their arguments include works from academic historians, because such scholars, in their view, cannot give helpful information due to their bias against conservatives.

    Others objected to the final chapter, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” which proposed ways to move further down the path of racial justice. The suggestions I included intentionally focused on systemic and institutional changes since, as Emerson and Smith describe in their book Divided by Faith, white evangelicals are so hyper-individualistic that they fail to acknowledge how racism works out in policies and practices apart from personal attitudes. Thus some objected to ideas such as taking down Confederate monuments as erasing history and reparations as “socialist.” Even in the midst of these negative reactions, however, the book has been more widely read than I expected and has received positive reviews online and in print publications.

    Each of the respondents on this panel has plunged beneath superficial observations to offer strident, discipline-specific analyses that have helped me see how I can improve on and better articulate my message about racial justice.

    Before addressing each respondent in turn, I want to attend to a common query regarding the term “complicity.” Throughout the past year since the book’s publication, people have asked why I chose this word. Given the egregious racism practiced by people in the name of Christianity, “compromise” seems ill-fitting. This is true. I addressed this very fact in the introduction when I wrote, “White Christians have often been the current, whipping racism into waves of conflict that rock and divide the people of God.” Plenty of white Christians stole, brutalized, raped, and murdered Black people and other people of color in the name of their professed religion.

    In this book, though, I wanted people to avoid the tendency to think only of KKK members and lynchers as the “real” racists. I wanted readers to grapple with the reality that the perpetrators of the most public and notorious crimes were comparatively few in number. The vast majority of white Christians enabled the violence of their coreligionists not just through action but passivity. Their silence conspired with the more vocal and violent racists to both create and uphold a white supremacist society. Complicity, in this context, does not imply a lack of culpability, but a different kind of guilt and responsibility for racism—one that includes acts of omission as well as commission.

    ****

    As a sociologist, Korie Little-Edwards offers critical insights regarding how groups function. She brings attention to “language and gender in an effort to expand our ideas on how we address race in the American church.” Regarding language she proposes that three specific terms would have been more helpful in the book: white supremacist / white supremacy, white hegemony, and whiteness. In her essay she succinctly and clearly defines all three terms and gives instances of when they might be used. Little-Edwards contrasts the language of white supremacy, white hegemony, and whiteness with vaguer terms such as “racial formation” and “racialized social system.” The latter phrases are too ambiguous and leave the perpetrators of injustice—white supremacists—unnamed.

    We historians do our best to avoid the passive tense in formulating statements. Not only does this make for weak prose, but it also betrays a fundamental principle of history, that people make history happen. Luther and Mary Holbert were not simply killed. A mob of white supremacists lynched the Black couple before a crowd of hundreds of spectators. An anti-lynching law was not merely passed in 2020. Three Black senators—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott—cosponsored the bill that Dixiecrats and their allies opposed throughout the decades of the Jim Crow era. Historians emphasize agency and human responsibility in historical events. The language of white supremacy / white supremacist, white hegemony, and whiteness places responsibility for anti-Black racism where it belongs, in the hands of white people.

    I express the specific responsibility of white Christians in the first chapter of the book. Borrowing a definition from social psychologists, I define racism in the book as “a system of advantage based on race” (16). This definition helps refute misinformed ideas such as “reverse racism” by bringing power and systems into the conversation. I also explain that in terms of US history, only “white people have historically had the power to construct a social caste system based on skin color” and that Christians have participated in this system of white supremacy (16). Thereafter I often refer to white Christians specifically when walking through the history of racism and the church.

    Yet Little-Edwards has convinced me to deploy the language of white supremacy and its corollaries more frequently and insistently. The words “white supremacy” and “whiteness” tend to trigger “white fragility”—a range of defensive responses that include “anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.” In conversations about race, however, using watered-down language that does not name the offender or the offended does not challenge the status quo and centers the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Little-Edwards brings clarity and specificity in citing three terms that can and should be used more often to describe our racial milieu. Equipped with this deeper understanding, I will now endeavor to use those terms more often in order to leave no doubt about where the responsibility for racism rests.

    Little-Edwards also highlights the importance of gender in any examination of racial dynamics: “The Color of Compromise is largely, not exclusively, the story of men in America and the role they played in the creation or dismantling of white supremacy.” She acknowledges places where I highlight women in the authors I cite and some of the stories I tell, but she writes that “not all whites have equal influence and power over the production and reproduction of white supremacy.”

    Since at least the 1960s historians have developed a sustained focus on race, class, and gender in their studies. Studied separately or as intersections all three categories affect the interpretation of historical events. To a large degree the deficiencies of many histories have come from their lack of an examination of race, class, or gender. The problem of gender in The Color of Compromise is one of scope and comprehensiveness. A historical survey must encompass vast swaths of history in a brief space, so I could not give equal treatment to issues of race, class, and gender. Still, it is critical to engage the work of other historians who focus on gender and race, which is why I intentionally referenced scholars such as Danielle McGuire and her book At the Dark End of the Street, as well as Heather Andrea Williams in Help Me to Find My People. Racism is gendered. Black women and other women of color face additional obstacles to inclusion and equality because we live in a society that is not only white supremacist but patriarchal and misogynist as well. Even in a survey, the ways race is differentially deployed because of sex and gender must not be ignored.

Nancy Bedford

Response

The Complicit White Christ as a Theological Problem

Jemar Tisby deftly narrates how the white Protestant tradition in the United States has consistently been enmeshed in anti-Blackness: the emphasis of the book is on the problem of white complicity with injustice in the form of racism. This can be seen in incipient form as early as 1619, when Africans were first sold on what is now the East Coast of the United States. Tisby traces the complicity of white Christian faith and practice with white racism through Independence, the Great Awakening, the Civil War, Jim Crow in the South, Sundown towns in the Midwest and West, racist practices such as redlining in the North, and continuing on through the racism manifested in white resistance to civil rights struggles, the rise of the Religious Right, the discourse of so-called color blindness, the pushback against Black Lives Matter as a concept and a movement, and in 2016 the election of an openly racist man as president of the country, for which support of white Christians was indispensable. The trajectory is clear and damning. Anti-Blackness is—quite clearly—part and parcel of a great deal of white Christian beliefs and practices in the United States, both implicitly and explicitly. The story of how this anti-Blackness has unfolded and the complicity of white faith communities in racist logic and structures is one that needs to be told and retold. I very much appreciate the form and the content of the book. I think it will be a very helpful tool, especially for white people who sense that something is not quite right, but who are hampered by the obliviousness and denial of dominant white culture in putting the pieces together.

Despite the anti-Blackness embedded profoundly in white Protestantism in the United States, Tisby tries to leave space for the possibility of transformation. If “racism is made it can be unmade” (38). The problem as he presents it is not with the message of Jesus itself, but with the fact that the gospel has been truncated by white Christians (38). The book can thus be read as a call (oriented primarily to white evangelical readers) to conversion from a “complicit Christianity” to a transformative gospel, a “courageous Christianity” (24, 215).

Despite the incriminating nature of the evidence he marshals, Tisby is generous to white Christians, stating for instance that their conscious intentions are not necessarily anti-Black (171, 188). He even attempts to read the actions of paradigmatic white evangelical figures such as Billy Graham with a hermeneutic of generosity (134–35, 140, 149). Nonetheless, the historical narrative that he weaves together speaks for itself: the material consequences of white Christian theology and practice have been deadly to Black people. His book makes it very clear indeed that a “moderate” anti-racism is no anti-racism at all, and that a “gradualist” or “moderate” approach to the intertwined dimensions of racial, social, and economic justice has no traction, given the intractability of anti-Blackness in this country and the adaptive capacities of white racism (160). Ibram X. Kendi’s analysis of the racist history of the United States comes to mind, in which he shows there are not two but three strands to the story: segregationism, assimilationism, and anti-racism; only the latter is not anti-Black.1 White evangelicals have as a rule oscillated between segregationist and assimilationist versions of anti-Blackness, but they have only very rarely been anti-racist, though only an anti-racist trajectory has any kind of traction against the phenomenon of racism and its deadly consequences for Black folk and other people coded as non-white.

My immediate question in the face of this deep white Christian complicity with racism is: What does this historical trajectory mean for theology generally, and for my theology in particular? As a white-passing Latina, I find myself in a liminal space. As a Latin American and as a Latina now living in the United States, I find the dominant modes of theological construction both in US white evangelical (“conservative” and “fundamentalist”) circles and also in US white mainline Protestant (“liberal” and “progressive”) ones largely unhelpful in pushing back against hegemonic common sense, theological and otherwise. As a person coded as “white,” who carries a last name that reeks of settler colonialism, I reap the benefits of a society designed for people who look like me. I am by definition embedded in structural complicities with the dominant logic of whiteness that I keep trying to peel away, layer by layer, only to discover more. I find that “conversion from complicity” with racism (and all the other interlocking oppressions that go along with it) is a lifelong endeavor. It entails understanding that “conversion” in this sense cannot be a one-time come-to-Jesus moment, but requires a kind of discipleship that can only take place as part of a community committed to anti-racism that follows a non-white Jesus by the power of the Spirit. Such “conversion” also has profound implications for the practice and the contents of theology.

One passage in the book that therefore drew my attention was a section where Tisby states that there is not significant doctrinal difference between the theologies or the doctrines of anti-Black, complicit Christianity and of a liberative, Black-affirming Christianity:

The divide between white and black Christians in America was not generally one of doctrine. Christians across the color line largely agreed on theological teachings such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the importance of personal conversion. (52–23)

As a theologian, I have to disagree. I do think doctrinal differences are central to the problem. Perhaps the key lies in the selection of doctrinal themes in this short passage. For example, though the “divinity of Jesus” is—as Tisby asserts—a common conviction “across the color line,” the true humanity of Jesus is not. And it is only in the incarnation in its fullest sense that it becomes evident what kind of God we are talking about in the doctrine of the Trinity or what the meaning is of conversion to faith in such a God.

White Christians in the United States not only need to convert from a complicit Christianity to a courageous or liberating one, but from a complicit white Christ to the Brown or Black Jesus of Nazareth confessed as the Christ. The “complicit” white Christ of majority white Christianity in the United States is a docetic (only apparently, but not truly human) figure, not anchored in history, not the son of a woman of color, not God incarnate present with us in order to free the captives and proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. The complicit white Christ is at the heart of a heterodox Christology that distorts the message of the gospel and sells out to the temptations of the devil of white hegemony, who promises continual and immediate gratification of all appetites, imperial dominance over “all the kingdoms of the world,” and the right to break the rules by which all other humans are forced to live. On the other hand, the Jesus known and confessed by the majority of Black Christians is very different. As Darryl Scriven puts it, the latter know a Jesus “walking in blackness,” who advocates liberation and cares for the poor whereas “the Jesus of the white evangelical church is a conservative Jesus that is primarily concerned with biblical inerrancy, pietistic conduct, and culture war issues.”2

The argument in the book actually provides many elements that problematize the affirmation that the divide “is not generally one of doctrine.” As Tisby’s narrative makes clear, both the biblical hermeneutic and the doctrines that emerges from these two kinds of Christianity (“complicit” and “courageous,” respectively) are very different.3 For example, Tisby shows that one of the most important factors that allows for the complicity of the Christian faith with anti-Blackness has to do with soteriology: limiting salvation only to a person’s soul (45). Conversion is understood only in the sphere of individuality and interiority (69). This sort of spiritualistic and dualistic theological anthropology (86) allows for a selectively literalistic hermeneutic of Scripture (84). It accedes to the treatment of human persons as if they were chattel (60, 75), separating spiritual from material equality (51). Even the metaphor of “redemption” itself, linked to payment for the liberation of slaves, and used in the Bible as a way to describe the work of God on our behalf, is put to the service of white supremacy (96).

The docetic white Jesus of white racism is a segregationist (134) and cannot be called upon to defend those who are in the crosshairs of anti-Blackness. Even white people who attempt to begin to question the logic of this racist theology will immediately feel the consequences of their heterodoxy, especially in the form of economic sanctions, such as the withdrawal of white financial support and donations from the institutions they inhabit (148). Conversion to a more “courageous” sort of Christian faith thus has material consequences that are designed to push white people back into the easier path of “complicity” and ineffective forms of “moderation.”

The chapter entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Now” suggests a series of helpful epistemological and ethical moves white Christians can make in order to begin to undermine complicities with anti-Black habits of mind and body. They include the explicitly theological moves against destructiveness by learning from the tradition of lamentation and rejoicing in the Black church (201–3) and rethinking current forms of theological education (203–5). All of the suggestions in the chapter are excellent, but I think that a robust engagement with doctrines such as Christology and theological anthropology also has to be a central “tool for engagement” in order to transform the dominant white Christian theological, epistemological, and cultural “toolkit” (175). The historical trajectory Tisby describes shows that many if not most white people who claim to be Christians in the United States follow a distorted, docetic Jesus who calls white people to complicity, not to conversion. What theological moves are needed in order for the call to transformation by Jesus of Nazareth to be heard in their midst?


  1. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation, 2016).

  2. Darryl Scriven, “The Call to Blackness in American Christianity,” in Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith, ed. J. Russell Hawkins and Philip Lake (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 265.

  3. This is seen paradigmatically also in the comparison between Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham (see esp. 131).

  • Jemar Tisby

    Jemar Tisby

    Reply

    Response to Nancy Bedford

    Nancy Bedford discusses a topic I have been pondering with increasing frequency. She takes issue with my statement, “The divide between white and black Christians in America was not generally one of doctrine.” Instead she says, “I do think doctrinal issues are central to the problem.” She brings three theological issues to the fore—Christology, soteriology, and anthropology. Black and white Christians, she contends, have a fundamentally different view of these doctrines that are central to their religion.

    The longer I study the intersection of race and US Christianity the more I am convinced that the divide between Black and white Christians is theological to the core. As Bedford ably explains, “The complicity of the Christian faith with anti-Blackness has to do with soteriology: limiting salvation only to a person’s soul.” Indeed the Christianity of the “disinherited” often proves incompatible with a theology premised on the superiority and centrality of whiteness. Why, then, is this point not more explicit in the book?

    In offering a historical survey, I focused more on events than beliefs. In my study, Black Christians often framed their differences with white Christians in terms ethical deficiencies. Ethics is certainly a branch of theology, but many Black Christians at least hinted that the problem of racism was the misapplication of a fundamentally sound Christian religion or simply the result of an insincere confession of the Christian faith.

    A well-known example I reference in the book is when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones depart the predominantly white Methodist church of which they had been a part. They left over racial segregation in the pews and in practice. Until that point, they had found a theological home in Methodism and persisted in calling themselves Methodists thereafter even as Allen became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thus when the opportunity to clearly distance themselves theologically from their racist white counterparts presented itself, they instead chose to keep all but what they found racist in the expression of the faith. In addition, as I describe with the Promise Keepers movement, during the racial reconciliation movement of the 1980s and 1990s, with all of its shortcomings in addressing systemic issues of racial injustices, participants tended to emphasize the commonality of their doctrine and used it as a basis for uniting across historical divisions.

    I agree with Bedford that Christians across the color line have deeply differing theologies, but perhaps the issue is partly one of disciplines. As a theologian Bedford clearly sees the theology at play in white supremacist Christianity and how much Black Christians formulated alternative theologies to oppose racism and oppression. A careful analysis of rhetorical models of preaching and speeches would undoubtedly support this contention. Nevertheless, many of the historical actors framed the issue of racism in the church as one of ethical application rather than doctrinal disagreement. Yet I could have done a better job highlighting events such as the emergence of the Black Liberation Theology movement in the 1960s that made explicit the theological divide between Black and white Christians. Theological treatments of the issue of race such as J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account and Kelly Douglas Brown’s Stand Your Ground, among others, offer valuable insights into the doctrinal contours of Christianity and race. Such works should be read in conjunction with historical treatments like The Color of Compromise “in order to transform the dominant white Christian theological, epistemological, and cultural ‘toolkit.’”

Amaryah Armstrong

Response

Bounded History

The Predicament of the Black Evangelical Imagination

Each generation of evangelicals seems to have its round of impactful books on racism in the American evangelical church and the hope that the gospel provides for a reconciled Christian body. From John Perkins’s Let Justice Roll Down, Spencer Perkins’s and Chris Rice’s More Than Equals, to Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues, and—one of the first books to get me thinking critically about evangelicalism and race—Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith, these reflections were both personal and critical. Examining experiences of racist oppression, the difficulties and joys of interracial friendship, and the depressing failure of reconciliation in evangelical contexts, these authors employed dynamic and living stories as a way to articulate their studied views on the state of race in American evangelicalism with the intention to inspire change. Over forty years after its first publication, John Perkins’s book is seen as a classic text for evangelicals on race. Similarly, nearly twenty years after its publication Emerson and Smith’s book is frequently cited in and out of evangelical circles in scholarly and lay conversations on race and the American church. These texts left an indelible mark on the shape of contemporary conversations about race in American evangelical churches.

Alongside these narrative-driven contributions, with the rise of black evangelicals also came an increase in historically and theologically oriented texts by black evangelicals, seeking to situate the evangelical theological tradition, especially in its Reformed evangelical variant, as the most natural and “biblically sound” development of historic black Christian faith. Carl Ellis’s Free at Last, Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African-American Theology, Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology, and Anthony Carter’s Black and Reformed each provide historical and theological examinations of black experience in America and the critical lessons to be learned from it regarding how “biblical truth” and Christian orthodoxy relate to black existence and black knowledge production. Situating themselves as the keepers of “sound doctrine” in black Christianity, these texts frequently narrate contemporary black communities as having fallen into “cultural captivity” figuring the black liberation theology of scholars like James Cone as representative of a dangerous decline from the biblical authority that earlier black Christians espoused. Indeed, many of these books repeated numerous anti-black tropes and conservative political and theological narratives to legitimate their claims regarding black people and black theology. At the same time, they attempted to encourage white evangelicals to care about race and work for racial reconciliation, or, as it has more recently been named, racial justice.

Situated in the trajectory of these works, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is both a fresh and a familiar voice. The freshness lies in a laudable shift in focus. Rather than a historical and theological story of a decline internal to black Christianity and black theology, Tisby situates his story of decline within white American Christianity as his historical survey seeks to illuminate the numerous ways that the white American church compromised with a racist social order. A PhD candidate in history, Tisby’s writing combines scholarly astuteness with the air of recent popular books on race: Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and Austin Channing Brown’s Still Here, which set the problem of whiteness more firmly in their sights as the purveyor of anti-black oppression as opposed to a pathologization of black culture and black knowledge. His position with regard to earlier black evangelical texts is thus less explicitly evidenced as he exhibits an interesting ability to “cross over” in terms of audience. Rather than an almost anxious insistence on a purported lack of “biblical truth” in contemporary black culture and black theology—and so a desire to remain “untainted” by those threats—Tisby’s media presence in venues like The Witness and the Pass the Mic podcast represents a turn in this generation of Reformed black evangelicals. Seemingly weary of the culture wars and their cover for white evangelical justification of racism, this generation of black evangelicals are not afraid to name the need for a justice-oriented political vision alongside a reconciliatory theological vision.

In this sense, there is less a fear of fraternizing with non-Christian entities such as Black Lives Matter. At the same time, Tisby recognizes the predicament he is in, speaking as a black evangelical, and so provides a clear set of guidelines for American evangelicals on how to discern what their local non-Christian black political organizations are up to by . . . encouraging them to reach out and ask them! While the formulations of “sound doctrine,” “biblical truth,” and “historical Orthodoxy” are assumed in many of the theological claims that Tisby makes about “courageous Christianity,” they are not premised as correlating to white theological presuppositions and thus do not seek to measure the black church or black theology against explicitly white notions of truth or orthodoxy. In this sense, Tisby’s book is premised on a positive vision of the contemporary black church and black theology as a necessary conversation partner in developing justice-oriented evangelical churches even if there are important places of theological divergence.

While I am no longer within the fold of evangelicalism, I make no attempts to run away from the indelible mark it’s left on my life and my scholarship. The possibilities that attend the black evangelical position have never appeared so necessary and, at the same time—perhaps precisely because of its development—have never appeared so riven with the paradoxes endemic to black evangelical existence and epistemology. The predicament can perhaps be framed as a matter of genre, though I am not talking about the historical survey. Tisby is aware that it is not easy to write a historical survey. Determining what to leave out, which figures to focus on, and what frame will tie things together coherently for one’s audience requires many difficult decisions at the level of form and content, substance and style. In responding to The Color of Compromise I want to be clear, then, that I have a great deal of appreciation for what he has accomplished with this book. It is an accessible book that deftly uncovers many of the historical moments of what Tisby names “compromise” in the life of the white American church. The chapters on the rise of the moral majority are perhaps the most compelling as one begins to see the enduring effects of the emergence of the evangelical imagination that still predominates today.

Thus, while I appreciate Tisby’s contribution, the predicament of black evangelical knowledge production that I am concerned about has to do with how this kind of book at this time of crisis in the evangelical imagination can contribute to an evangelical discourse that is, taken as a whole, at odds with giving serious attention to blackness for its own sake. Which is to say that the primary sense in which books on race gain popularity in evangelical circles is because their depictions of black experience, the black church, or black theology are seen as having something to teach white Christians. As a scholar in the academy, I can say from experience that this predicament is not, I think, unique to black evangelicals. However, it is the case that black studies as a field of knowledge production developed precisely as means of providing legitimacy and authority to black scholarship on its own terms. I truly can’t understate how significant of a shift for me it was when I began to study black existence and black epistemologies simply for their own sake, for the ways they helped me better understand and attend to black people and black history and black imaginations and black religiosity as opposed to being for the edification of non-black, primarily white, people.

My point is not that Tisby is solely writing for a white audience, simply that it is a key audience and that always comes with certain constraints. That the white people in Tisby’s audience are very likely to only know how to understand black history, theology, and existence as a threatening one thus shapes the tone of the book, which regularly has to clarify that it is not simply lambasting Christianity, but attempting to provide an honest assessment of its history. The predicament of the black evangelical, then, is precisely that their legibility (and so legitimacy) as one who is not a heretical threat or endangering biblical authority, depends on assuming these kinds of caveats about Christianity—pulling back from the force of its history in order to justify it, because how else to explain one’s own enduring presence within it? It is along these lines of inquiry, then, that I wonder if it is possible that the laudable turn to history as a means by which to renarrate American Christianity and so give an account of its racism is halted by a frame that assumes, from the start, that the way to proceed in reaching its sources is by narrating it in terms of a “compromise” and so a distortion of the redemptive kernel at the heart of Christianity.

The difficulty of writing this response is the difficulty of having been raised black and evangelical and so recognizing the peculiar constraints that attend such a position. Tisby has, admirably, inhabited his position with a courageous examination of the historical record. He notes how colonial Christianity denigrated indigenous and African religious traditions and imaginations and asserted Christianity as a universal truth. He honestly examines the history of how evangelical positions moved on abortion as a means to cover up their anxiety about integration and interracial sex. He takes evangelical idols like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield to task in their support for the status quo of slavery. These are all recognitions that I would not expect to register in the writings of earlier black evangelicals, and it is a genuinely exciting appearance. At the same time, the difficulty in my response here is one where my continued confrontation with the long history of Christianity and its relationship to the invention and preservation of, not only race but a global order of anti-blackness, presents enduring questions regarding the ability for this frame of thought to do justice to the complexities and richness of black existence and black epistemologies. Does narrating this American Christian history as one of compromise rather than a history that has, over and over again, shown itself to have anti-blackness as the animating force of its sense of order, orthodoxy, authority, and existence really enable the kind of accountability that would bring about the transformation that Tisby so desires?

My questions to Tisby are thus concerned with what kind of demand black thought and black existence makes on evangelical thought and existence? And does a narrative of compromising Christianity versus courageous Christianity serve to, in the end, leave evangelical Christianity off the hook because it insists on recuperating the theological interpretations, knowledge, and sense of existence and order reproduced in and through an anti-black arrangement of things? Which is simply to ponder aloud about whether the anti-black anxieties on display in evangelical thought, especially in black evangelical thought, recur here—repeating the problem of evangelicalism’s tautological justification of itself precisely because this critique of American Christianity refuses to make a demand of evangelical Christianity at its core. How long can we continue rationalizing Christian history, existence, and knowledge by narrating its theological and historical productions of anti-blackness as a misapplication of “biblical truths” rather than something endemic to how Christianity produces its claims of justification and sanctification and so seeks to justify itself historically? For, if white settlers and slaveholders legitimately thought and felt and believed that God had given them governance over black and indigenous people, truly were convinced of the rightness of their theological beliefs and that it was a sin not to convert them, on what grounds is one able to indict them as even compromising Christianity within a theological system that takes those notions as self-justifying truths? Their actions are situated within a long history of Christian violence in the name of legitimating Christian identity, authority, and history. Which is to say, on my reading, some measure of existence and epistemology that is not given in Christianity—which always works to legitimize itself and the anti-blackness that it introduced and maintains in racial modernity—is necessary to providing an account of both Christianity and blackness.

As Sylvester Johnson has noted in The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity, taking seriously the paradoxes inscribed into black existence in the New World—due to our having been written into a Christian story as the heathens in need of conversion—means taking seriously the symptomatic anti-blackness that is at the heart of American theologizing and historicizing about race, regardless of the author’s race. Genealogical attempts to recuperate patristic theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian, and so use them as a sign that black Christians also have roots as deep and long as white theologians, repeat the practices of nineteenth-century black writers, historians, and theologians, who attempted to show how black Hamitic descent was not a sign of a curse, but of their ancient Christian existence. The point that seems significant to me, here, is not that these contributions were simply compromising with white Christianity. Far from it! They were significant exertions of black creativity. They were significant attempts to use the forms of legitimated knowledge and argumentation to affirm black existence. They were significant assertions of blackness as ungoverned by the order of knowledge that would simply legitimate a self-justifying system of things. However, in attempting to run away from the threat that black existence and black epistemologies (especially found in the claims of black liberation and womanist theology) make for a system of thought and practice predicated on the supremacy and legitimacy of Christianity’s God and the ordered knowledge about Him, black evangelicals—repeating the paradoxical predicament of black American Christians in general—have frequently attempted to distinguish themselves from non-Christian black people by imitating white theologies, social imaginations, and political projects. While Tisby represents something of a shift from this kind of posture in focusing his writing on a deficiency at the heart of white Christianity, I’m still concerned that the orientation of the narrative as a struggle between different kinds of Christianities—compromising vs. courageous. When, in fact, the effects of white Christian supremacy have also been deeply harmful to non-Christian black people.

In distinguishing those black people who belong to the household of faith (though perhaps not to the family of God) from non-Christian black people outside the household, Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, perseveres in positing a Christian identity forged in the crucible of anti-blackness, settler colonialism, and anti-Semitism as the most important sense of self that one can hold. If the threat of something out of order is precisely the anxiety of Christian existence and epistemology that leads to the settler colonial violence at the heart of its New World expansion, what will it take for black evangelical accounts of history to refuse to still that anxiety, and, rather, exacerbate it by questioning this story of compromise that Christianity loves to tell about itself? That black existence and knowledge has endured under the name of Christianity is no surprise. But just as the fact of black existence and knowledge enduring under the imposed name of “American” is no justification for the American project as a courageous one, black existence and knowledge that has been made with Christian materials is not a sign of a courageous Christianity as much as courageous black people and black communities who have used what they can to create worlds and imaginations and lives that can’t be accounted for in the terms that justify Christian order and authority. Without such a story of compromise, what might black evangelical thought look like? How would a black evangelical make sense of American Christian history and the history of black people held captive within that national religious project?

  • Jemar Tisby

    Jemar Tisby

    Reply

    Response to Amaryah Armstrong

    Those of us who write about white evangelicalism and Christianity and race need to learn from scholars like Amaryah Armstrong. Her response challenged my paradigms and some assumptions of which I needed to be reminded. She was concerned about how my book at this particular moment in the evangelical narrative “can contribute to an evangelical discourse that is, taken as a whole, at odds with giving serious attention to blackness for its own sake” (italics original). She reminds us that books on race need not teach white people in order to be valuable. Instead, the field of Black Studies emerged partly to assert that Black experiences deserved analysis and held value apart from how white people received the work.

    Armstrong’s assertion speaks to the challenge that Black people and people of color have in writing under the “white gaze.” It is a pervasive, often reflexive, apprehension about how white people will respond to the content we produce. This internal wincing developed through a lifetime of enduring racism and absorbing subtle and explicit messages that scholarship focused on Black people holds less value or centrality than scholarship focused on white people. As Toni Morrison said, it is “as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” But this, of course, is not true. Our lives and our history hold value all on their own.

    The white gaze has deep implications for how we frame our discourse on race. Knowing white evangelicals would read the book, and having had extensive experience with their recalcitrance when it comes to race, I wrote in a way that would be intelligible to them. But as Armstrong wrote, “That always comes with certain constraints.” Much care had to be given to clarifying terms, qualifying quantities (not every single white Christian), and explaining the pain of racism to those who have never endured its agony. This is the situation confronting every Black writer and scholar. How to communicate in a way “that had no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people, no little clues.”

    There is no simple way to wriggle out from under the white gaze. The way I approached this dilemma in The Color of Compromise was to state the history as clearly as possible, which, I believe, carries a force all its own. Judging from the responses of people across the racial and ethnic spectrum, the history hits hard and forces reflection.

    We must not overlook another crucial element of Armstrong’s observations—her assessment of Black evangelicalism. With clarity I have encountered in few other scholars or pastors, she dissects the conundrum of Black evangelicalism. She begins with a review of the literature written by Black evangelicals, concluding that “these texts frequently narrate black communities as having fallen into ‘cultural captivity.’” They see Black Christianity in “decline” and judge Black liberation theology as heterodox or defective in some way. So I appreciated her judgment of my book as a more “positive vision of the contemporary black church and black theology.” Armstrong recognizes what few others have been so able to articulate—that the whiteness endemic to evangelicalism makes the very existence of “Black evangelicals” a dilemma.

    Is it possible to develop a religious discourse about evangelicalism that does not center whiteness? Are Black evangelicals destined forever to do their work under and in light of the white gaze? It is possible to cultivate an unapologetic blackness while remaining substantially committed to evangelical beliefs and institutions?

    History tells us that the majority of Black people abandoned white Christian denominations and organizations, especially after the Civil War. They determined that full humanity could not be achieved within those white spaces, at least not without prohibitively high costs in terms of time, effort, and pain. Some Black people left Christianity altogether and adopted atheism, Islam, or African spirituality. At the same time, the past is also filled with Black Christians who endured within or adjacent to white Christianity in the hopes of making racial justice and reconciliation a priority. As a student of history, then, I must attend to the spectrum of ways that Black Christians have navigated their faith in the midst of white supremacy baptized in Christianity. The meager contribution of The Color of Compromise to the “problem” of Black evangelicalism (which is truly the problem of white people practicing white supremacist Christianity) may be in highlighting from a historical perspective precisely why Christians of color have such a hard time existing alongside white Christians.

Shane Claiborne

Response

Looking Back in Order to Move Forward

In a rowboat, you look backward in order to row forward. That may be how history moves too.

We can’t get our future right until we get our history right.

And Jemar Tisby has helped us make some major strides toward this in his recent book The Color of Compromise.

Like a festering wound, our history of racial terror and violence has never healed, and it infects us all. It demands treatment. As Tisby quoted King, “Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up . . . injustice must be exposed.”

Much of the time we try to act like history doesn’t even leave a scar . . . while in fact not only is there a scar, but there is an infected wound that’s in danger of poisoning the very bloodstream that gives life to our body. Injustice must be exposed.

We cannot have reconciliation until we have truth. Tisby says it like this: “There can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth” (15).

Amen to that.

The truth will set us free.

The Complexity of Changing the Narrative

Changing the narrative of history is easier said than done, as Tisby is well aware.

Equal Justice Initiative founder, Bryan Stevenson, often says, “We won the legal battle, but we lost the narrative battle.” One of our greatest challenges is to change the narrative—of what America was, is, and could be. Bryan goes on to point out that many countries have terrible histories of oppression, slavery, and massacring of Native peoples. But the greatest evil in our context is the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to justify it. That’s uniquely American.

Or as Princeton’s Eddie Glaude has said: “America is not unique in its sins as a country. We’re not unique in our evils, to be honest with you. I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent, you know, goodness to hide and cover and conceal so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.”1

US history has been washed in a theology that sanctifies it. There is no doubt that we have changed, altered, whitewashed the dominant narrative of US history in such a way that it is no longer true, factual, or accurate.

At times, we have created an alternative history that never existed (I dove deep into this in my book Beating Guns in an analysis of the “Wild West” that helped retroactively create our gun fetish). Guns are a God-given right. Christopher Columbus discovered America. Black people were happy picking cotton. Andrew Jackson was a good man and deserves to be on the twenty-dollar bill. Native Americans agreed to treaties and were treated with respect. God gave this land to the settlers . . . etc.

And we have sanctified our history by baptizing it in the sacramental waters of Christendom. Like all religions the religion of American nationalism has its own history—in our case “manifest destiny”—and its own doctrine of discovery whereby God destined Europeans to conquer the land. It has its own message of salvation—freedom and democracy—its own creeds and songs, the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance. Its own icons and symbols in the flag, the stars and the stripes. It is all encompassing. Even our money is branded “In God We Trust,” as it sustains an economy that regularly manifests the seven deadly sins. But as Tisby points out so well, one of the great miracles of history is how those who have suffered deeply at the hands of those who practice and enforce this nationalized Christianity have survived their toxic theology and spiritual malpractice.

As the old Proverb goes, “Until the story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This runs deep. In order to change this narrative, we need to amplify the voices outside of white evangelicalism. The loudest Christian voices have rarely been the most beautiful ones. And many of the beautiful voices have not had the amplification they deserve. This is one of the primary objectives of the work I do with Red Letter Christians, a non-partisan movement of Christians who care about Jesus and justice . . . or as we say a “web of subversive friends” working hard to “harmonize but not homogenize.”

We must decenter the white evangelicalism that has been shaped more by whiteness than by Christ.

So . . .

We need new history books that tell history as it was rather than how we wish it was.

We need new confirmation classes that tell the truth about our denominations, many of which were formed because we were on the wrong side of justice and equality.

We need new monuments that memorialize the oppressed rather than the oppressors. (Imagine if we memorialized 9/11 by setting up statues of the nineteen terrorists.)

We need new holidays that help us ground ourselves in history, real history.

Much of this truth-telling, narrative-shaping, history-remix is what gave birth to a project I’ve been involved in called Common Prayer, a collaborative initiative that led to a prayer book with reflections, saints, historical markers, and songs from history that tell the age-old Story.

Truth Is Shaped by Experience

Some narratives are factually wrong, while others reveal differences of experience or perspective. When it comes to race, there are competing narratives of lived experience that run on parallel tracks. Or perhaps we are riding on the same train up the Pacific but one side is seeing the ocean and the other side is seeing the desert, so we might as well be on different trains. This is why when you ask white folks and people of color if racial bias affects our policing and criminal justice system, white folks overwhelmingly say no and people of color overwhelmingly say yes. We are experiencing the world through different lenses, or we are living life on parallel train tracks. And it is hard to change a person’s “truth” as they know it until we change their social location and lived experience, or at least their social network.

Here’s one of the challenges with just changing the historic narrative: our lives hold different truths to be self-evident. For most of us, our worldviews are shaped by what we see out our windows. Our personal experiences shape our social and political and theological ideas. So the way we change someone’s mind is by changing their experiences. But how do we do that with people who are experiencing a totally different reality? How do we invite them to change lenses when the worlds are so far apart?

I don’t believe we can heal the wounds of our history of racial terror in culturally homogenous silos. White folks cannot recover from white privilege in an all-white setting. Some of this I know to be true personally. I went to high school in a segregated Southern town in East Tennessee. My high school (the “rebels”) had the confederate flag on everything—football uniforms, murals, cars, everywhere. What changed for me was my window. When my relationships changed and my environment changed so did my theology and my politics and my worldview. Sometimes our problem is not a compassion problem but a relationship problem, a geography problem, a proximity problem.

Challenging Post-Race Colorblindness

Several years ago, actress Raven-Symoné said on Oprah that she didn’t like labels and would prefer not to be categorized as “African American,” among other things. She just wanted to be called “human.”2 It’s a sentiment we bump into often, especially from folks on the younger side, and regardless of skin tone.

Certainly, one of the obstacles to progress in the area of racial healing and racial justice is a postmodern, post-racial, colorblind way of thinking about racism. It’s not always as simplistic and cliché as being “colorblind,” but manifests itself in similar privilege-and-oppression-ignoring ways. To pretend to be raceless can have catastrophic consequences. Our systems are not colorblind. They see color very well, as we know from police shootings, bias in hiring, disciplinary biases in schools, and a myriad of other ways. As much as we would like to live in a post-racial society, we aren’t there yet. And pretending that we are can be dangerous.

Let me press in a bit more. I don’t think God wants us to be colorblind. Certainly, God doesn’t want us to discriminate. I think God wants us to see the world in color. God wants us to see diversity, culture, uniqueness.

Theologically, I think we can see this is the difference between the monoculture of Babel and the multicultural, beloved community of Pentecost. At Babel, God scattered the pretentious human monoculture—one language, one people—and created many cultures. And at Pentecost, God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, made one not by their own hands or by a shared, single language but by the Spirit of God.

They are the new sign of God’s Spirit—a community that is as diverse as creation itself, as unique as our fingerprints and DNA. But it is a community in which we understand each other amid our diversity, each one as a child of God. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. Oneness doesn’t mean sameness. We are not all the same—thanks be to God. It just means we learn to celebrate our differences. I don’t want to be “colorblind”; I want to see color. I want to know people and their stories and their cultures. We are wise and rich when we are diverse.

What to Do with Truth Once We Have It

One of the questions worth wrestling with is what to do with the truth once we have it. What does reconciliation looks like? What do reparations look like?

A brief look to recent developments at Princeton Theological Seminary is enlightening. After a deep dive into its particular history of racial harm, Princeton Theological Seminary announced a move to repair some of the wounds with a $28 million reparations initiative. Many of the students and alumni wanted more, suggesting at least 15 percent of the seminary’s $986 million endowment ($147 million).3 There were also competing visions for what should be done with the money. Should it go toward debt relief for graduates? Or should it go toward the incarcerated who continue to live out the dark legacy of our nation’s history?

The answers are not easy, for many reasons. Some suggest the best initiatives would involve creating new departments in the seminary that will emphasize and help repair parts of our history. Others suggest money go directly to the descendants of enslaved people. Still others suggest working inside the prison-industrial complex descended from slavery and Jim Crow.

Anytime you bring money into the equation, we run the danger of assigning life monetary value. And yet we can’t avoid talk about money. No amount of money is going to right the wrongs of history or heal the wounds. But meaningful reparations are inconceivable without thinking deeply about money, and land, and access to resources and services.

A Few Experiments in Truth

What does it look like to do justice in light of our unjust past?

Vague statements about “healing racism” are not enough. We have to be willing to ask concrete questions about actual events. What might justice or reparations look like for the Lakota people in light of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee? Or in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that murdered four girls and injured twenty-two others? As tough as such questions are, the more particular we can get the more substantial the healing can be. A few interesting projects I’ve seen and participated in:

First, the work of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. They have created a museum and memorial to help do a better job of telling history. But they have also created historic markers so that each town can come claim their own history of racial terror. (If the towns do not come claim them then the markers sit out in public view as a reminder that this incident is still not being recognized.) They’ve also created some stirring ways of memorializing the lives lost to racial terror. I was on a delegation that gathered soil from a lynching site, It now sits in a glass jar with the story of the incident, in the museum alongside hundreds of other jars.

Second, historic audits or truth and reconciliation forums. There have been a few of these in North America to bring together those who have been harmed and those who participated in doing the harm. One of these happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, in regard to the Greensboro massacre of 1979. In New Jersey, there have been meetings between community and police to do a historic audit (Equal Justice USA has helped coordinate these). I am currently encouraging our district attorney in Philadelphia to conduct a similar statement after participating in a historic audit, recognizing the harm the office of district attorney has perpetuated in communities around the country. Incidentally, our DA is a historic civil rights defense attorney who ran for the highest prosecutorial office in order to revolutionize everything it stands for (he’s against the death penalty, against cash bail, etc.). We Philadelphians are so fed up with the criminal justice system that we elected a defense attorney as the city’s highest prosecutor.

Third, there is a growing Federation of Mayors (one of whom is a friend of mine in the UK named Marvin Rees) who are convinced that change often happens most powerfully at a local level. The hope is to create a federation of mayors that can learn and work together, especially in regard to healing the residue of racism, inequity, and injustice.

Those are just a few concrete experiments that put teeth on many of the concerns raised in The Color of Compromise. I’d love to hear other imaginative, generative ideas.

Stepping Up to Meet the Theological Challenges

I found myself invigorated by Jemar’s love and hope for the church. As he quoted King: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”

One of the questions raised by Tisby—and by history itself—is the question of salvation. Is salvation personal or social? Or both?

Like many things that were never meant to be separated, the personal and social go together like blades of scissors. Most of us may lean heavy on the personal and others on the social, but healing the wounds of racism and other social ills takes both personal and social salvation. As I have studied gun violence, it is clear that we have both a gun problem and a heart problem. God heals hearts, and people change laws. We need both policy change and heart change. Even if we got rid of all guns, people would still find ways to kill each other. We’ve already seen folks turn pressure-cookers into bombs and drive cars into crowds.

The same is true with racism. If progressive policies ignore the need for the Spirit to heal racist hearts and deliver us from a culture of fear and scarcity, we will create an increasingly polarized and fragile society. However, if we only see racism as something that God needs to heal on a personal level, we are also held hostage. As we look back at the Civil Rights movement and the abolition movement, we see clear evidence of God alive and at work. We needed the Spirit of the living God to heal racist hearts. And there are many miracle stories of deliverance, reconciliation, and reparations. Nonetheless, we did not just need hearts to change—we also needed laws to change. We needed to pass laws that assured black folks and white folks (and all folks) could swim in the same pools and drink from the same water fountains and go to the same schools. Both laws and hearts needed to change.

This dichotomy between the individual and the social also surfaces in political engagement. Just as folks asked Dr. King not to talk about Jim Crow from the pulpit because it was “political,” we see many white moderates and conservatives who suggest that our Christian faith should not get political. This argument falters in light of how these same groups engaged politically on topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. Nonetheless it is a strange and troubling theology that disengages faith from policy. I saw a recent interview with Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University (the largest Christian college in the country and ground zero for the religious right in the 1980s). The reporter asked Mr. Falwell how he reconciles his commitment to Trump with his commitment to Jesus. Falwell answered, “I don’t look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.”4 He goes on to say that Jesus did not tell Caesar how to run Rome, that he taught personal charity and stayed out of politics, and never meant “turn the other cheek” to apply to Roman soldiers.

The great commandment of loving our neighbor does not permit us to ignore policies that affect them. To love our neighbor includes concerning ourselves with policies that allow them to flourish.

But what Jemar does so well is to show us how the principalities and powers—and sin itself—can infect, not only individuals, but also our social and governmental and ecclesial institutions. This is why his use of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism is so helpful: “racism is a system of oppression based on race” (16). This explains how we end up with schools that are no longer segregated but still have segregated budgets, a mass incarceration system where one in every three African American boys born today can expect to go, police departments that are quick to pull a gun on black and brown people, a criminal justice system that, as Bryan Stevenson says, “treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”5

Finding Life Outside White Evangelicalism

I’m not convinced we can reclaim a healthier, more robust spirituality without renouncing the power of the state, even recalculating the compass of where our hope for change comes from. It is clear that many white Christians have been shaped more by their whiteness than by Christlikeness.

I become quite discouraged by the energy still being spent on deconstruction. Many progressive circles can feel like post-evangelical therapy rather than a venture in building up a more robust ecclesiology and faith.

Tisby points out that African Americans are the most religious demographic in the United States, with 83 percent of black people saying they “believe in God with absolute certainty” (compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites).

Rather than simply leaving Trump-evangelicalism or conservative fundamentalism, white Christians (and others) would do well to join congregations led by people of color. Many post-evangelicals and recovering fundamentalists will find a vibrant spiritual home outside white evangelicalism.

White folks need to practice being a minority more often (it won’t be long before we are). We need to be deliberate and intentionally put ourselves in places where we are a minority by changing where we worship, the organizations we support and serve, and the books we read and have stacked on our bookshelves.

A Final Word on Spiritual Warfare

I truly believe that what we are up against are “principalities and powers” and spiritual forces at work in the world. Certainly, these dark spiritual forces can possess people as we remember Dylann Roof shooting members of Emanuel AME in the middle of Bible study and worship. But that possession did not happen all of the sudden. Just as Christian disciples are formed and shaped into the way of Christ, white terrorists are also formed, discipled into a way of hatred. The good news is that hatred and racism can be unlearned, just as they are learned. As Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”6


  1. Ian Schwartz, “Glaude: Trump the Manifestation of the Ugliness in Us,” RealClear Politics, August 6, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/08/06/glaude_trump_the_manifestation_of_the_ugliness_in_us_must_set_people_free_from_being_white.html.

  2. Raven-Symoné Pearman, “I’m Tired of Being Labeled,” Oprah Winfrey Network, YouTube video, 2:41, posted October 5, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXAho8vlmAI.

  3. Valerie Russ, “Princeton Theological Seminary Pledges $27 Million Reparations Plan,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 22, 2019, https://www.inquirer.com/news/reparations-princeton-theological-seminary-slavery-repent-27-million-20191022.html.

  4. Joe Heim, “Jerry Falwell Jr. Can’t Imagine Trump ‘Doing Anything That’s Not Good for the Country,’” Washington Post, January 1, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/jerry-falwell-jr-cant-imagine-trump-doing-anything-thats-not-good-for-the-country/2018/12/21/6affc4c4-f19e-11e8-80d0-f7e1948d55f4_story.html.

  5. Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 313.

  6. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown, 1995), 622.

  • Jemar Tisby

    Jemar Tisby

    Reply

    Response to Shane Claiborne

    Shane Claiborne adds a soulful amplification of the central themes in The Color of Compromise. In addition to naming the toxicity of white supremacist Christianity he expresses a Christian commitment to viewing the problem: “I truly believe that what we are up against are ‘principalities and powers’ and spiritual forces at work in the world.” Claiborne possesses ample frontline and grassroots experience working for the liberation of both those entrapped by white supremacy and the objects of it. His years of activism have given him myriad examples of real-world application of racial justice principles. With Red Letter Christians he helps to weave a “web of subversive friends” who unite Jesus and justice in their religious practice. With his book Beating Guns he takes on the commitment that many white Christians have to guns and violence. He has also been on the streets marching against racism and at the dining room table living in embodied Christian community.

    One of the reasons I went with a Christian publisher, Zondervan, for this book was to approach the topic of Christian complicity with racism from a faith-based perspective. Although history provides the primary lens of analysis, the book is a call for the contemporary church in the United States to practice racial justice. It is an attempt to “speak the truth in love” about our shared racial history and to see the Christian church grow in wisdom and application around race. As a prolific writer, Claiborne often encapsulates this spirit with powerful metaphors. “Or perhaps we are riding on the same train up the Pacific but one side is seeing the ocean and the other side is seeing the desert, so we might as well be on different trains.” His reference to other activists and organizations such as Bryan Stevenson or the Federation of Mayors demonstrates that there is still a network of women and men dedicated to living out the principles of fairness, justice, and hope. Claiborne’s comments and his lived example eloquently express the unity between information and action, between faith and works. He articulates the embodied example of what “courageous Christianity” looks like in practice.

Liz Theoharis

Response

A Battle of Theologies

Building a Moral Fusion Movement Today

I want to start this response with gratitude to Jemar Tisby for his powerful and prophetic book, The Color of Compromise. I start also with remembrance and reckoning for those killed by violent ideologies, acts, and policies of systemic racism, four hundred years after the first African slaves were brought to the United States, one hundred years after a racist president showed Birth of a Nation in the White House, and forty years after the Greensboro Massacre where a multiracial group of community activists were murdered by the Klan and Nazis in broad daylight in collusion with the police.1 For the forty-nine people killed in the mosques in New Zealand, the eleven people killed at Tree of Life Synagogue, the twenty-two people killed in the Walmart in El Paso, the nine killed in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the 250,000 who die every year in the United States because of poverty and systemic racism,2 we must vow to not let these deaths be in vain. Rather, our work must be dedicated to the thousands of people who will continue to die if we do not confront white supremacy, poverty, the lack of clean water and clean air and storms caused by climate chaos, militarism, and war, and the false moral narrative of white Christian Nationalism—a narrative that Tisby documents has morphed but persisted throughout history.

Reading Color of Compromise I was reminded of a biblical passage from Isaiah 3: “The LORD will enter into judgment with the religious leaders and politicians of the people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’”

Indeed, this passage runs consistent with the theory and theology laid out by Jemar Tisby in his book. The Atlantic published a study recently that nearly every American murdered by extremists in 2018 was killed by white supremacists.3 Systemic racism and white nationalism is indeed crushing many people today, and in the spirit of Color of Compromise, we must ask: “Where are white Christians on this?!” Many are blaming poor people, immigrants, people of color, queer people for our problems and claiming that the only moral issues addressed in our Bible are prayer in schools, same-sex marriage, and that Jesus was a card-carrying member of the NRA. Some are stoking the flames of division and pitting us against each other, emboldening white nationalism and culture wars, (mis)quoting the Bible to justify state-sponsored violence, building up walls and blind loyalty to ruling authorities. Even those who condemn vigilante violence and racist slurs often are still feeding us the lie of scarcity and compromise—that this is as good as it gets—that we’re making progress—that token acts of charity is the best we can hope for—when we’re living in a world of abundance that has the ability to make poverty and racism history on a structural level.

Here in the United States, the richest country in the world at this moment in history, there are 140 million people who are poor or low income—including 61% of African Americans, 65% Latinx, 40% of Asians, and 65% of Natives. Fifteen million can’t afford water, thirty-seven million are without health insurance, 76% of people with health insurance still can’t afford some medical costs. Sixty-two million people earn less than a living wage; there’s not one county or town or city in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment.4

History and the Bible tells us—documented in Tisby’s book—that to solve structural social problems we need a moral movement from the ground up with those most impacted in the forefront. And this movement requires people of faith as standard bearers willing to ignore, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.” Such struggles of the poor and marginalized—what we in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival call “moral fusion movements”—run throughout our sacred texts: Exodus is a founding story of God being on the side of the poor and oppressed. The Deuteronomic Code offers commandments of how you care for your neighbor is how you honor God. The prophets denounce oppressing the poor, and show us when there is oppression in the land, people being made homeless, workers not being paid living wages, faithful people are called forth to shift the narrative and build a movement. The gospels proclaim bringing good news to the poor: Jesus travels around the land setting up free health care clinics, not charging a leper a co-pay. Even Paul’s epistles instruct the followers to offer mutual solidarity through the collection for the poor.

Nevertheless, although there are powerful historical and biblical precedents for overcoming oppression and the lie of white nationalism, too often those in power have engaged in policy violence and religious leadership has justified and covered for this—as Tisby documents in great detail. Indeed, the passage I quoted at the beginning from Isaiah 3 indicts religious leaders and politicians as responsible for devouring the environment, for creating war and conflict, for seeding racism and white supremacy and Tisby’s critique of Christians’, especially white Christians’, complicity in racism falls in line with this prophetic critique. Isaiah 3 says that the rich and powerful have the spoils they stole from the poor in their houses. It is the poor who have made Amazon what it is, but Jeff Bezos has stolen that profit and packed his many houses with it. McDonalds Corporation appeals to African Americans to be consumers but pays their workers—the majority of whom are people of color—so little that half need to rely on public assistance—all while many of the leaders in the McDonalds’ Corporation are self-identified Christians.5 When three people have as much wealth as the bottom 50% we must analyze this as a structural problem not an accident, social not individual.6 It would not be possible to accumulate that much on one’s own; low wages just don’t happen by accident; greed and pathology alone don’t explain the problem.

And so just as Tisby demonstrates the collusion of religious leaders and the powers and principalities in writing policies that allowed slaves to be baptized as Christians but remain in chattel slavery (25), we must draw connections to politicians passing voter suppression laws, cutting people’s water and utilities, kicking kids off food programs, and allowing the poisoning of water systems, air, and land while religious leaders bless these policies and cherry-pick Bible verses to justify it. We must see that when the Supreme Court upholds the religious freedom of cake bakers to refuse to sell to LGBTQ couples but denies the religious freedom claims of Apache spiritual leaders to keep a multinational copper mining firm off their most sacred ground, our society continues to uphold a racist system and our church is controlled by and complicit in such oppression.

Indeed, in order to wrestle seriously with the social history Tisby has written and apply it to our society today, we must especially explore the connection of the suppression of voting rights, the attack on immigrants, the mistreatment of indigenous communities, and the growth of poverty in more detail. Millions of people are poor and suffering because racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering create unfair elections that keep poor people, especially poor Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, out of the democratic process. Indeed since 2010, more than twenty-three states have passed racist voter-suppression laws.7 In the unfair elections that have followed, both political parties have used racism to smuggle politicians into office who have suppressed wages, cut health care, and denied critical social services for the poor of all races, genders, geographies, etc. All the while, most of our churches have remained silent on this systemic racism.

Therefore, in line with the demands that Tisby documents Black people have presented throughout the decades and inspired by the resistance of foreparents, it is clear that we must reinstate the voting rights act, we must reinstate early voting, we must have same-day registration, and multiple-day voting, and automatic registration at the age of eighteen, an end to voter ID laws and interstate cross check. We must have just immigration policies that lead to citizenship and the right to vote. We must ensure that all indigenous communities have housing and health care and education and the protection of the land. We need all these rights and demands now. And it is the duty of faith leaders to be in the forefront of such struggles.

We know this because leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival have met with moms whose children have been caged in prisons and detention centers because of systemic racism and growing poverty. In El Paso, Texas, we waded in the Rio Grande water with mothers and grandmothers who have been separated from their families because of an immoral wall and unjust immigration policies. In Louisiana, indigenous communities and immigrant Vietnamese and Latinx communities and Black communities and poor white communities are all being impacted by policies passed because of voter suppression that make it okay to pollute and destroy and poison. In Flint, Michigan, the democratically elected officials had their power taken away because of governor-appointed emergency managers who approved of the poisoning of the entire town. When moms complained that their hair was falling out, that their kids were getting sick and after General Motors came forward saying that the water from the Flint River was rusting their car parts and the car factory switched their water source, those same moms were told that car parts and body organs and parts were like comparing apples and oranges.8

In the spirit of resistance in Tisby’s book, Christians and especially white Christians must hear the cry to build a moral movement that stands against systemic racism and poverty. This means like people have done in history, poor people of all races must come together, reject the lie of racism, be led by those most impacted by racism and poverty to unite and organize together. I am reminded of a quote by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the power of pitting the poor against each other. He taught that Pharaoh had a favorite formula for keeping the slaves in slavery and that was having the slaves fight each other. Because when the slaves come together, look at how powerful they can be. This we have seen throughout history—in slavery, in reconstruction, in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

At the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march Dr. King said:

You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.9

It is vitally important to respond to and engage with Tisby’s book, because as a white woman I am called to say that racism is used to keep the poor disenfranchised, divided, down. Systemic racism eats at the very soul of human beings and our nation. White nationalism is a sin against the goodness of all God’s creation. And it is our obligation to confront it.

I am also encouraged that a powerful multiracial movement is rising up. Poor people across this country are coming together and organizing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. There are poor white homeless youth in Gray’s Harbor, Washington State, and poor Native people from Arizona and New Mexico, and poor Latino people from California and across the border, and poor Black families from Lowndes County, Alabama, and Selma, Alabama, and Marks, Mississippi, where the Mule Train to Washington left from in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. We are uniting and organizing the poor of this country—poor Black, poor white, poor Native, poor Asian, poor Latino. And we’re calling on American churches to break the silence on and complicity in racism.

In that same speech at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Dr. King had some inspiring words:

Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist. Let us march on poverty until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded. Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena.10

And this march, us getting into step, the call for white Christians and all people of good will and conscience to join an anti-racist moral fusion movement, must engage in the battle for the Bible that Tisby suggests (70). We cannot stand aside and allow misinterpretations of isolated excerpts of biblical text to justify poverty, to claim racial inferiority of anyone, to distract from the twenty-five hundred passages in the Bible that speak to justice and liberation. We must take up the very texts that are used to mask and justify racism, including and especially those penned by the Apostle Paul. Back in his day, the conquered nations of the Roman Empire were pitted against each other using another form of systemic racism. Galatians were told to hate Macedonians. Romans were prodded to fight Egyptians. Armenians were called rowdy and divided against Corinthians. And within nations Jews were set against gentiles, slaves were opposed to ex-slaves.

But Paul’s message in Galatians 3:28 says in a movement “there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal.” Now a lot of the time this passage is used to say there are no differences among us. But this passage is really saying to us, keep your differences, keep your culture, keep your faith practice—but do not discriminate, do not allow anyone to go hungry or homeless or without their basic necessities, do not let racism and discrimination creep in. That is not the way of God. That is not the way of the movement. In other words, equal protection under the law is nonnegotiable. Any poverty is unacceptable. A revolution of values is possible.

We must learn the lessons Tisby has eloquently put before us: stop allowing Christians to spread a false moral narrative; confront religious leaders who, in the words of my co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. William J Barber II, “p-r-a-y for politicians that p-r-e-y on the poor”; we must build a moral movement led by those most impacted by systemic racism and poverty; we must learn from history to construct a new future.


  1. For more about the Greensboro Massacre, see Rosalyn Pelles and Jordan T. Camp, “The Greensboro Massacre at 40,” Boston Review, November 1, 2019, https://bostonreview.net/race/rosalyn-pelles-jordan-t-camp-greensboro-massacre-40.

  2. “How Many U.S. Deaths Are Caused by Poverty, Lack of Education, and Other Social Factors?” July 5, 2011, https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/how-many-us-deaths-are-caused-poverty-lack-education-and-other-social-factors#sthash.084dF56U.dpuf.

  3. Adam Serwer, “The Terrorism That Doesn’t Spark a Panic,” Atlantic, January 28, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/homegrown-terrorists-2018-were-almost-all-right-wing/581284/.

  4. All of these statistics can be found in “Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years after the Poor People’s Campaign,” produced by the Institute for Policy Studies in collaboration with the Urban Institute and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (https://ips-dc.org/souls-of-poor-folks/).

  5. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, “Majority of U.S. Fast-Food Workers Need Public Assistance: Study,” Reuters, October 15, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fastfood-wages/majority-of-u-s-fast-food-workers-need-public-assistance-study-idUSBRE99E0N920131015.

  6. Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie, “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us,” Institute for Policy Studies, October 2017, https://inequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/BILLIONAIRE-BONANZA-2017-Embargoed.pdf.

  7. “Souls of Poor Folk,” by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Urban Institute, and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

  8. Chris Caruso, “A Case Study on Organizing: The Struggle for Water in Postindustrial Detroit,” in Willie Baptist and Jan Rehmann, Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011).

  9. Martin Luther King Jr., “Our God Is Marching On!,” March 25, 1965, Stanford King Papers, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching.

  10. King, “Our God Is Marching On!”

  • Jemar Tisby

    Jemar Tisby

    Reply

    Response to Liz Theoharis

     

    The Color of Compromise served as a diagnosis of the historical problem of racism and Christianity in the past and its ongoing effects in the present. But a diagnosis is only a beginning. A prescription is still needed to alleviate the symptoms of the illness and provide a long-term remedy. Liz Theoharis provides just such a prescription as she carries the implications of the book to their logical present-day conclusions.

    Theoharis and Claiborne harmonize in their refrain calling for justice and equity to correct racial oppression. Theoharis’s experience as a theologian and activist with the Poor People’s Campaign become evident through her fluid application of biblical texts and historical happenings to current events. “Jesus travels around the land setting up free health care clinics, not charging the leper a co-pay. Even Paul’s epistles instruct followers to offer mutual solidarity through the collection for the poor.” She demonstrates that the spirit that led Jesus to heal, that moved Civil Rights protestors to march, is the same spirit that animates activism today.

    As I travel and speak about race, justice, and Christianity, the most frequent question I get is “What do we do?” I reserved the final chapter of the Color of Compromise to provide some direction on the structural and systemic changes we need to make in order to change the racist status quo. Theoharis’s analysis goes even further in providing responses to the persistent question of how to fight racial injustice. “We must especially explore the connection of the suppression of voting rights, the attack on immigrants, the mistreatment of indigenous communities, and the growth of poverty in more detail.” White supremacists embedded their racist ideology into the concrete policies and practices of our nation. They work themselves out in state, local, and federal governments, the work place, law enforcement, and entertainment. To contend with racism today means taking concrete action to change the unjust patterns of behavior and the rules woven into the tapestry of our life together.

    Theoharis also highlights a point that hovers in the subtext of my historical survey and her calls to action—that faith leaders must be at the forefront of racial justice movements. Many calls for anti-racism fail to give due attention to religion, especially Christianity. While most would acknowledge the complicity of white Christians in the construction of a racist society, many of the books, presentations, and movements hardly mention religion at all. But if people who called themselves Christians were such a significant part of the problem, they must also be challenged to be part of the solution. Throughout US history, Christian leaders and laypeople have often found fuel for the fight against racism from their faith. This tradition continues today. Whether from the pulpit or the podium, in the neighborhood or throughout the nation, people of faith see in their religion the principles to move toward racial equity, inclusion, and justice.

    I endeavored to provide scholarly history that could be verified and had already withstood scrutiny by other experts in the field. But my hope for The Color of Compromise is not that people would simply read to gather information but to find the courage and inspiration to take action. As a student of history, the long trail of racial injustice should infuriate anyone who claims to care about humankind. That anger, which may be termed righteous, provides the kindling for protest. Thus the entire book is an effort to instill in the reader a sense of righteous indignation that cannot abide complacency. Once the truth about the American church’s complicity in racism has been revealed, inaction can no longer be an option.

    ****

    Each of the contributors has expanded and deepened my understanding of racial justice. I am indebted to their thoughtful engagement with The Color of Compromise and their influence will be seen in my future writing and work on racial justice. I hope the discussion continues online, in conferences, and in other forums to advance our various academic disciplines as well as further the Christian call to love and justice.

    My hope for this book is that readers, especially Christians, would acknowledge the indispensable nature of historical inquiry to issues of race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, and white hegemony in relation to Christian faith and practice. Whatever people might profess with their mouths or write in a document, their actions proclaim their true beliefs about the dignity of human beings across racial and ethnic lines. Historical study, which includes tracing how past events and policies shape the present day, offers the opportunity for confession. History is the prerequisite to justice because history compels us to admit that we have a problem. Only then can we begin to address it.

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